web analytics

Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Great Blue

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


How cheery and uplifting a bright blue sky is for the soul in mid winter. It draws me to break trail in fresh snow. The experience is most beautiful when scattered white clouds parade in front of the sun creating an alternating blue-gray snow blanket when clouds temporary block the glistening sparkles of sunrays on snow crystals that soon reappear once clouds have passed. I want to bundle everyone in warm winter clothes to join on the Courier and Ives experience among the natural wonders beyond our confining doors.

It is easy to dream about the beauty of times past when viewing Courier and Ives pictures or watching winter scene screen-savers cascade across the computer. Stick your head out the window and yell “I’m Excited” to alert your neighbors. Bundle up and show others it is time to explore the Great Blue.

With unrestrained excitement I started the morning. The dog was anxious to head into the great blue yonder. I carried a camera to concentrate on the snow covered tree branches with the blue and white backdrop created by the crisp winter sky. A 20-degree temperature was comfortably warm but cold enough to preserve snow snakes on stark winter branches. Some of the snow was slipping from branches but was cohesive enough to hang in loops creating the appearance of long white snakes resting in the winter sun. Just as I was ready to snap a picture the loop broke and fell. I’ll wait for another day to capture an intact winter snow snake.

Meanwhile the dog was searching the snow with nose buried deep in rabbit and deer tracks. His nose was to the ground while my eyes were raised to the sky. We finished our joint walk and I ventured out to explore on my own.

I walked toward Peninsula Bridge at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. As I approached the footbridge over the creek, another Great Blue leaped from the shallow water, stretched large wings and flew upstream. Each winter I occasionally see a Great Blue Heron frozen statue-like in the creek’s shallow water waiting to spear a passing fish for lunch.

When it flew, I was unprepared to raise the camera to capture the departing Great Blue. I expected I might see it again when walking the pond loop trail. Quietly I traversed the narrow isthmus between the two frozen ponds and crossed high ground separating the west pond from the flowing creek. The hidden heron flew from the creek and landed on a branch long enough for me to capture a picture.

Today was this year’s first heron sighting. Its Great Blue added to the Great Blue sky above and the Great Blue reflecting from shadowed snow. Cottontail tracks and droppings were telltale signs of where the rabbit has nightly explorations. Deer trails provided evidence for preferred travel routes. Snow was deep enough to show drag marks where hooves scraped the surface between tracks.

All are beautiful art in the snow. They are not snow angels we make but are natural artifacts made by animal winter activities. Deer and rabbits remain hidden by day but squirrels are seen nosing the snow for hidden treasures buried months ago. Some large areas have been cleared of snow by deer searching for the squirrels buried treasures. Deer beds were melted in snow where deer rested. One group of beds was along the forest south edge where it meets field. Deer were taking advantage of the sun’s low winter angle warmth while remaining protected among shrubs. The snow has allowed me to locate two other bedding areas that would be hard in find without snow.

I approached the creek near the road and discovered the Great Blue Heron standing in the stream waiting patiently for food to pass within reach. I snapped a distance picture, got the mail and left without disturbing it. As long as there is open water, these long legged Great Blue wading birds stay the winter and brighten my days in nature niches, as do the other exciting Great Blues provided in nature’s winter world.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, or call 616-696-1753.


Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Great Blue

2014 Christmas bird count results

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


The Canada Goose totaled 1671

The Canada Goose totaled 1671

There were 47 traveling observers and 12 stationary watching at bird feeders that observed 60 species of birds (Table 1) for the 2014 Kent County Bird Count period on held January 3, 2015. No additional bird species were reported during count week. Total individuals sighted were 8,763.

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was reported. We are waiting for a verification description before the species is counted for the official report submitted to National and Michigan Audubon. The female grosbeak and the female Purple Finch have somewhat similar appearances. The grosbeak species should have migrated to South America for the winter but it is possible one remained Michigan. One is occasionally seen on a Michigan Christmas Count. A rare bird report with convincing detailed description must be submitted for birds that are rarely found in the state during the winter count period.

Bird counts held across the continent document population numbers and distribution trends. The large data set helps provide reliable information regarding southward or northward population changes over several decades. Individual year population movements to the north or south do not indicate habitat or climate change but long-term changes provide evidence that the environment is changing. Citizen science projects like the annual bird count provide useful data for scientists studying environmental quality, habitat, and climate change. The information helps business and government analyst predict economic impacts of environmental change for society. This year’s count was the 115 Christmas bird count and is the longest running citizen science project.

Weather conditions were 100 percent cloudy with snow falling and temperatures were between 26 and 38 F. A light breeze blew east-northeast.Snow depth on the ground was between 0 to 1 inches.Moving water was open and still water was 80 percent frozen.

We totaled 82.25 hours in vehicles traveling 649 miles. Fourteen hours were spent on foot covering 21 miles. A combined total of 670 miles were on foot and driving. Groups totaled 106.5 hours of daytime birding. Night owling occurred during 1 hour and six miles of driving. There were 19 morning birding groups and 13 in the afternoon.

We are grateful for essential section coordination by group leaders and the many people that offered help to make the count a success.

OUT-Nature niche Christmas bird count table Sheet1

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, 616-696-1753.


Posted in Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on 2014 Christmas bird count results

Cedars of Cedar Springs

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Two cedars are common in West Michigan but neither is actually considered a true cedar (Cedrus sp.). The true cedars do not grow naturally in North America. Perhaps the best-known true cedar is the over harvested Cedar of Lebanon whose removal caused flooding and other environmental problems.

Locally two cedars grow in different habitats filling different nature niches.

The White Cedar, also known as Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), is a wetland species, for which the town of Cedar Springs gains its name. In our area, it is most common in cold swamps or along streams, where moving water prevents acidic stagnant conditions. Cedars require neutral to basic nutrient rich soil conditions, with a pH of 7 or greater. This is more important than keeping their feet (roots) wet.

When crossing Mackinac Bridge northward, we are greeted in the Upper Peninsula with White Cedars along I-75, growing on high ground composed of high pH soil covering dolomitic limestone. The cedars give me the feeling that I am entering the North Country. The Grand Rapids area of West Michigan, eastward across Michigan, is nearing the southern limit of the tree’s abundance. White Cedars are found farther south but large native stands primarily end their southward range here. They also hug the cooler climate along Lake Michigan and have found growing conditions suitable to southern Michigan.

In good habitat, the trees grow densely. Roots are shallow and spreading, allowing them to receive oxygen easily. If deprived of oxygen, they will not thrive. Moving water in swamps brings a fresh supply of nutrients annually, during spring snowmelts and high water.

The shallow roots result in trees being toppled easily by strong winds. I have been in Cedar swamps with fallen trees piled ten feet thick. Many times White Cedars grow in thick, pure stands following fire. Deer feed heavily on cedars and depend on mature trees, where they yard together for survival in harsh dangerous winter conditions.

Cedars’ dense growth and evergreen flattened branches hold snow, preventing it from falling to the ground. Shallow snow depth on the ground allows easier deer movement. Predators find it more difficult to capture and kill deer in such conditions. When deer leave the safety of cedar swamps into deep snow, they become vulnerable and even without the presence of predators deep snow requires increased energy expenditure.

Finding food buried in snow is difficult. Along Cedar and Little Cedar Creeks, Cedar trees are no longer abundant. When humans settled here, the native habitats were greatly altered. It is interesting to note that many roads and towns are named for species once abundant but were removed by human development. Now the plant and animal names dominate communities more than the species themselves.

One can gauge deer abundance by how heavily Cedars are browsed. When deer populations are excessively high, Cedars are browsed as high as deer can reach, when standing on their hind legs. Where deer populations have not exceeded the carrying capacity of food, water, and shelter, Cedar branches can be found growing closer to the ground. Lower green branches have become rare in much of Michigan.

The Red Cedar is actually a juniper (Juniperus virginiana) growing on high dry ground. It is a southern tree that found its way into mid Michigan. Prior to logging and European farmer settlement, the Red Cedar was uncommon here. Clearing of forests allowed this shade intolerant species to expand its range northward on well-drained calcareous soils. When driving south in winter, the Red Cedars seem to dominate highway shoulders where its evergreen branches are apparent during the cold season.

Its branches are very prickly to the touch, unlike the softer feel of White Cedars. It is drought resistant, slow growing and might live a few hundred years if not harvested. Its wood is also decay resistant, used for fence posts, cedar chests, and closet linings like that of White Cedar, for which Cedar Springs was named. Wood from both repel insects, fungi, and provide a pleasant aroma.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.


Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Cedars of Cedar Springs

Carry On

By Ranger Steve Mueller



As I begin a happy and joyous new year, I have been contemplating years past. A poem I wrote, in 1972, carries an important idea, from when I was a young man. The idea holds true as I age. I remain functional and hopefully productive despite a new normal, and experimental cancer treatments received at the University of Chicago hospital twice weekly. Though the cancer is not curable, it is treatable. I fully expect to thrive for many years and continue as a productive citizen for human and non-human communities.

The coming year is bright and full of cheer. Plans for enhancing life at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary are many. Plans for maintaining and enhancing nature niche conditions for fellow species are reason enough to “Carry On” myself. How we live in neighborhood nature niches that we share with life on Earth is vital for the wellbeing of future human generations. It is impossible to live, much less thrive, without other species that maintain a healthy biosphere.

Carry On

A person’s body is only a means

to carry his ideas into the world.

Death should return his body to the soil

while his ideas live on in others.

A person’s philosophies need be passed on

and not his picture or mummy.

Embalm me not, destroy my body,

but put my thoughts to use.

Though people like recognition,

their names are on the books,

It’s of no value to my cause

to memorize my name.

Continue where I leave

so my goals might be achieved.

October 9, 1972

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.616-696-1753

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Carry On

Cherry Crop Pest Management


By Ranger Steve Mueller


Cherries and plums for our Christmas festivities depend on crop production. Michigan has an important cherry orchard industry. We eat cherries throughout the year and I particularly like Traverse City Pie Company cherry pies.

The American Plum Borer is a micro moth that few people ever see but it feeds on cherry and plum trees. It is the most important pest of these trees in Michigan. Natural control species such as birds, spiders, beetles, ants, and wasp parasitoids are important for maintaining pest control.

Legislation has been introduced to revise the definition of “conservation” regarding biological diversity to remove key provisions regarding restoration, distribution and the “continued existence” of native species and communities. It would prevent biodiversity from being considered when managing natural resources. Biodiversity is fundamental to healthy functioning nature niches. It is beyond my comprehension and the scope of the article to address political motivations that undermine maintenance of healthy ecosystems. By the time this article is printed the vote will likely have occurred.

The focus here is on the American Plum Borer, Euzophera semifuneralis (Walker), a Pyralid moth and other species that control it. Like so many aspects of the natural world, very little is known about the moth’s biological control despite it being the most important pest of the cherry and plum trees. A change in how we harvest cherries is one reason it is an important pest. About 40 years ago we shifted to hydraulic tree shakers from human manual pickers. The mechanical harvesting by machines instead of humans causes cracking and tearing of the bark.

The moth lays eggs that hatch and enter through the bark injuries. Caterpillars feed on the thin cambium that produces new tissue for transporting food, water, and nutrients. Trees usually die within five years if the insects are too abundant. To control the insect, pesticides are used but pesticides used are being discovered as harmful to us. They are increasingly restricted to safeguard our health. That makes a case for maintaining natural biodiversity of native species to help control the insect that takes food from our tables.

A variety of birds including the Northern Flicker and other woodpeckers were commonly found probing the bark in spring and summer for moth larvae. White-breasted Nuthatches and other birds search the tree wounds and bark for larvae and over-wintering hibernators.

The most common parasitoid eating the moth larvae is a tiny ichneumon wasp. Parasitoids are different from parasites in that they kill their prey. They feed inside the caterpillar on non-vital tissues at first and later eat vital organs causing death. A true parasite does not kill its host. A mosquito is a good example of a parasite on us.

Crab spiders species were found preying on the moths. A beetle, nematode roundworms, fungi, and ants are important natural controls. Many natural control species await discovery. Often when pesticides are used, the natural control species are more severely reduced than the pest species because they are not as abundant. The pest species is then able to reproduce more rapidly in the absence of natural controls and create increased economic harm.

Two things that would help keep cherries on our tables would be to reduce the mechanical damage to tree bark by tree shaker machines and to maintain natural biodiversity so native species are able to continue their ecological role in the food web. One might think it would have minor impact for politicians to prevent scientists and land managers from using best practices to maintain biodiversity but their action can be devastating. Details about the biological control of the American Plum Borer can be found in a scientific paper written by David Biddinger and Tim Leslie in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of The Great Lakes Entomologist journal.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.




Posted in Featured, Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Cherry Crop Pest Management

Annual Christmas Bird Count

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Join others for the Christmas Bird Count on 3 Jan 2015. Experienced birders will help identify about 60 species during the National Audubon, Michigan Audubon, and Grand Rapids Audubon Club sponsored Christmas Bird Count. Meet at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) across the road from Lowell High School.

We assemble at 7:30 a.m. and are searching various count circle sections by 8 a.m. Spend the morning or the whole day. There is no charge to participate but the National Audubon welcomes an optional donations. A lunch will also be provided for $5 for those that desire or people can brown bag their lunch.

This is my 28th year coordinating the Kent County event. Plan to discover birds in their winter nature niches and celebrate the diversity of life that abounds during the winter. About 60 people gather and divide into small groups to explore various areas with section leaders. The count area has a 7.5-mile radius surrounding the Honey Creek and Two Mile Roads intersection.

It is a mystery what species will arrive to compliment our regular winter residents. Some people are surprised that American Robins and Eastern Bluebirds are regulars each winter. Their primary winter diet is berries found in wetlands. Birds from more northern areas might arrive if food is scarce farther north or if weather is particularly harsh. Other species like the Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, and Song Sparrow might linger here instead of heading south if winter conditions are mild. Many species of waterfowl will be expected on open water.

The Grand Rapids Audubon Club and WWC invite families for this free family event for part or all day. Previous bird knowledge or experience is not necessary. To enhance a great birding experience we carpool. The WWC is located at 11715 Vergennes Rd across the street from Lowell High School. The co-sponsoring WWC has a great facility where you will see many live mounts of birds displayed. The hiking trails are open for hiking every day of the year. We hope to see you on January 3, 2015.

Come dressed in layers that can be removed or added as temperature changes. We are in and out of cars at many locations. Bring binoculars and bird books if you have them. People will share if you do not. Call me ahead of time with questions or just show up on count day.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.


Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Annual Christmas Bird Count

Wolves in Ecosystems Part 2

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

The gray wolf. Photo from the Encyclopedia Britannica online (Britannica.com)

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Wolves’ presence and behavior increases wildlife populations despite their killing individual prey. Their predatory role in ecosystems has significant positive impacts on animal and plant communities. For thousands of years their presence in Michigan nature niches fluctuated in relation to plant and animal population abundance.

Canada lynx studies found plant populations control top predator populations. The Hudson Bay trapping records show snowshoe hare populations increased despite lynx, wolf, and other predators until the hares over browsed the plants causing hare starvation. When hares died the predators starved. Predation slowed hare population growth that helped maintained healthier communities.

When wolves were returned to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, they caused elk and other prey species to roam more. This saved shrubs and trees from being over browsed in valleys along rivers. Shrubs and trees regenerated habitat when protected by wolves.

Mice, rabbits, and other herbivores were able to find food where deer and elk had previously devastated wildlife communities by overgrazing. Songbirds moved into areas when vegetation recovered. Beavers found rapid growing aspens provided essential food that allowed their return to streams and rivers. They built dams creating rich floodplain habitat that had been lost and washed away in the absence of wolves. Wolves eat beavers when the opportunity arises but these rodents reproduce more rapidly than predators kill them. Large fires in the Yellowstone region also rejuvenated early succession communities but wolves caused elk and deer to move preventing overgrazing.

Beavers created wetland habitats, stabilized stream banks, and reduced soil erosion. Fish populations found healthier streambeds for egg laying. More oxygen in less silted rivers aided fish survival.

With increased landscape vegetation that resulted from wolf presence, plant-eating rodents increased and resulted in more predators like hawks, eagles, weasels, foxes, and badgers. Carrion left by wolves allowed bears, ravens, and other animals to provide more food and it improved their health and reproductive success. Increased shrubs provided more berries needed by bears, birds, and many other animals. What inferences can be applied to Michigan ecosystems? No one animal or plant is responsible for all positive or negative changes. It is a community effort but some animals like the wolf start what is called a positive “trophic cascade” in how they change animal movements and cull animal populations with selected animal predation.

The wolves even changed the course of rivers. Overgrazed landscape along rivers cut straighter channels when wolves were removed but with the wolf return stream meanders returned. Vegetation recovery along banks reduced erosion causing stream meandering. More pools developed with more fish hiding places. Waterfowl increased. Wolves transformed the landscape to healthier nature niches for plants, mammals, birds, amphibians, insects and a host of native wildlife that had diminished in wolf absence.

Human social and economic aspects of wolf presence have been beneficial in the Yellowstone ecosystem but not completely. Ranchers drive cattle into the national forest and leave them unattended to feed. In Michigan, farmers graze animals on their private property and care for their livestock. The national forests are public lands used for watershed flood management, timber harvest, grazing, hunting, hiking, camping, recreation, fishing, and mineral extraction. In short they are all things for all people.

This becomes a management challenge when people consider their interests more important than their neighbors and it results in Congressional gridlock. Maintaining healthy ecosystems to provide for future generations of our families requires decisions beyond one group’s personal self-centered interest.

There are times when wolf management is important for our neighbors. At present in Michigan, each case is addressed when a problem arises. Legal hunting might one day be appropriate in balance with the multiple uses of our National and State forests in the UP. Decisions should be ecosystem focused for maintaining society’s sustainable needs. Plants and animals have essential roles in ecosystem sustainability that we cannot duplicate. Future generations are as important as our own but decisions frequently place priority only on the present.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.


Posted in Featured, Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Wolves in Ecosystems Part 2

Wolves in Ecosystems (Part 1)

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Wolves crossing the Straits of Mackinaw to the Lower Peninsula (LP) seems unlikely, but it was reported three crossed on ice near Mackinac Bridge. A shipping lane is open all winter but it froze long enough. It turned out the canines were dogs and not wolves.

The Northern LP is heavily populated with people so it is likely human/wolf conflicts would require DNR intervention. Coyotes sometimes take livestock and the DNR receives trapping requests for offending animal removal. This occurred near Rogers City. The farmer was issued a permit to trap the coyote. To everyone’s surprise a wolf was trapped. That is the only wolf known from the LP in almost a century. No tracks, sightings, characteristic predation, or road kills have been found since.

Four wolves were reintroduced to the Upper Peninsula (UP) in 1974 but vigilantes illegally shot two, one was trapped and killed, and a vehicle hit the fourth. Later wolves immigrated on their own from north of Lake Superior in Minnesota, expanded into Wisconsin and reestablished a population in Michigan. They arrived in the western UP about 1984. I personally saw one in the eastern UP that year.

I was conducting contract insect research for the MDNR in Schoolcraft County in a forest clear cut when a wolf stood with forelegs on a cut tree to look at me. My 85 lb. German Shepard was 300 feet to the east. The wolf was about 300 feet to the west. The wolf was larger than a coyote. Coyote’s weigh about 35 lbs. Coyotes are skittish and depart quickly. The wolf paused to look at me before dropping to the ground and disappearing in the open clear cut. That is also typical wolf behavior, while coyotes typically run. I was amazed the wolf could sneak away unseen in a relatively open area. Jim Hammill, MDNR wolf biologist, agreed it was probably a wolf based on the behavior description.

Wolves are predators and were eradicated from Michigan. Following forest logging in the 1800’s, the deer population grew. Few hunters venture into the depths of regenerating forest and many prefer bucks with large antlers instead of does. The deer herds grew until the 1950’s, when a series of hard winters decimated the population. Since then deer herds grew with some reduction years.

The MDNR is responsible for managing wildlife population sizes where political and social motivations often have priority over ecological science. One MDNR wildlife biologist told me he knows hunting licenses pay his salary so it makes it right to base his decisions on license fee promotion rather than sound ecological science. He tries to balance both when possible.

Devastation of plant and animal populations caused by deer feeding habitats has concerned people. Most people, however, do not read supporting ecological studies. Some State Parks and nature centers began politically challenging deer hunts to reduce the devastation. Hoffmaster State Park hosted a Trillium Festival where deer eliminated most trilliums and reduced other plant and animal populations. Objections to these hunts are often based on emotional responses and personal desires rather than nature niche ecology.

Four conservation groups visited Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary during September and were pleased with the abundance of native species compared to exotics species. The back 40 acres have been leased for hunting for decades and it helps keep the deer herd in ecological balance. Several years ago, the hunters told me poachers shot several deer and left them to rot in the woods. If the deer meat was processed, it would have been reported and hunters prosecuted. The sanctuary is surrounded by agricultural land so I suspect a local farmer did the poaching. The MDNR will issue harvest permits for deer causing damage to farmers, so poaching is not necessary. The same is true for wolves where they live. If wolves were present here, the deer population would probably not be as large and fewer would be killed annually on the road at Ody Brook. Unfortunately there would be social/political wolf problems in Kent County because of our large human and domestic animal populations. Wolves will kill pet dogs and domestic animals.

Wolves in the UP now exceed the target population of 200. Some conflicts exist between farmers and wolves. The MDNR inspects problems and specific wolves are removed. This helps prevent wolf packs from learning to take domestic animals. I waited to share this until after the recent wolf ballot election to avoid the ire of people voting based on emotion and personal interest and those preferring scientific research study decisions. Details of the role of wolves in ecosystems will be described in Part 2 of this article next week. Suffice it to say for now, I am pleased both issues were defeated. The first ballot issue was to create a hunting season on wolves managed by the MDNR. It was the better of the two but political pressure similar to deer hunting pressure would be significant. The 2nd ballot issue would have placed decision control with a small politically appointed group that could accept or reject scientific findings. I expect there will be a time when managed hunts might be appropriate.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net. Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. Phone 616-696-1753.


Posted in Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Wolves in Ecosystems (Part 1)

Changes in Animal Communities

By Ranger Steve Mueller



Ernest Thompson Seton and his naturalist partner studied caribou, arctic hares, wolves, arctic foxes, Canada Geese, Lapland Longspurs, Ptarmigans, and many other animals when they explored the arctic tundra in 1907. He headed north from the Eastern Deciduous Forest Biome where we live to explore a vast and relatively unknown arctic biome.

He wondered if caribou and musk ox still survived with the onslaught of uncontrolled shooting. He hired local native people to guide him north through known country and then ventured farther into an unknown landscape with the use of sketchy maps created by early explorers.

When I lead groups through various habitats in the deciduous forest biome at Howard Christensen Nature Center or Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, I focus attention on the succession of animal communities in habitats. Lichens and mosses colonize bare ground and are followed by a variety of plants in succession from grasses, herbs, shrubs, and trees. Associated with each set of plants are specific animal communities of greatest interest to people. The animals can only survive when associated with appropriate plant communities. The plants sustain many animals that become prey for other animals.

Farm fields at Ody Brook and HCNC were abandoned and became good study sites. At the site that later became Ody Brook, the farmer drove his tractor and equipment through the creek in spring and found it problematic so two 5-acre fields were abandoned. This also stopped the stirring of sediments that would cover trout eggs. Farming was abandoned in one field during the 1970’s and the other in the late 1980’s. At HCNC, the farm field was abandoned in the early 1960’s.

Habitats became qualitative observation areas (general overviews) when HCNC was established in 1974 for students in the Kent Intermediate School District. Observational field trips were led to help students understand succession relationships in nature niches. Qualitative studies are a good introduction to science but provide limited evidence required for making supported conclusions.

When I became director at HCNC in 1986, we established a study plot where students could learn how to gather quantitative data (detail numerical observations) in the abandoned field. The study plots supported school curricula expectations in science, mathematics, social studies, language arts, and art classes. The field trips allowed students to gather detailed quantitative data with hands-on learning experiences that helped apply classroom “book learning” to real-life applications. Quantitative studies supported the students general qualitative impressions made on discovery hikes at the nature center.

As society becomes more urban and suburban, people have fewer opportunities to learn the importance of qualitative or quantitative farming and wildland ecology values or their importance and how they are essential for maintaining a sustainable society. Farmers need quantitative observations to know when to treat insect infestations because qualitative is not accurate enough. They also need to know how to properly space crops. Following my departure for HCNC, the Kent Conservation District that assumed management of HCNC removed the quantitative study plot in the field. Quantitative studies in wildland communities require long term detailed data collection, and require coordination and integration among a variety of subject areas. Teachers need classes to return yearly and have students gather data for current classes to analyze to make valid scientific conclusions using data from previous years. Science, math, art, social studies, and writing teachers need to coordinate together for student learning to be most effective. Students need guidance to apply connections among art, math, science, and social studies.

What does this have to do with Seton’s arctic expedition? He spent the summer recording general qualitative observations but he also gathered some scientific quantitative evidence. Both are useful. Qualitative observations provided a general appearance of occurrences but quantitative evidence provided detailed records with specific numbers, species, and plant growth that would be useful for documenting changes over time. That is what students were gathering between 1986 and 2005 at HCNC. Detailed long-term data collection is necessary to make valid conclusions. In the arctic Seton made initial qualitative observations that set the stage for quantitative studies to follow. He also gathered quantitative data by collecting animal and plant specimens. Representative animals were shot for the American Museum of Natural History. The opened the stomachs of animals to document food eaten as well as documented behaviors observed.

It was not until Dr. Curtis provided detailed quantitative data from Lake Michigan Dunes that concept of plant succession was supported with adequate quantitative scientific evidence for valid analysis and conclusions. His model is now used worldwide. Quantitative studies are essential. Quantitative studies are not perfect but further repeatable studies allow scientific debate and corrections. Quantitative science is self-correcting. Most of us did not receive that kind of education as students. I didn’t. Modern curricula better prepares students with the help of places like HCNC. Unfortunately field trips have become fewer even though they are vital for helping students apply content learned in classrooms. Cedar Springs used to visit HCNC regularly with all grades from K through fifth. Parental encouragement at schools may help reinstate them. Lily’s Frog Pad Inc. has now assumed management of HCNC and we will see where the future leads learning. HCNC has expanded opportunities beyond school groups to community programming.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.



Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Changes in Animal Communities

Easter Egg Bird


By Ranger Steve Mueller


What you call it is not as important as what you enjoy about it. In the spring, this bird leaves Michigan’s cozy balmy winter residence, for regions to the north, where it will nest. Some people call them “snow birds.” Small flocks of the Dark-eyed Junco are seen throughout the winter but they head northward in April. Some linger well into May.

They are gone from our area during summer. My first sighting this Fall was October 10, when one arrived in the yard. Within a week several were present. They prefer open woodlands, so many of our neighborhoods are desirable habitat. Similar to us, they prefer fields with scattered trees and thicket borders. It is easy to be a good neighbor to these small active sparrows.

Take time to look closely when they are near bird feeders to notice the pink bill and their charcoal dark heads. They have gray backs and sides but their bellies are white. They also have outer white tail feathers that flash as they walk or hop about the yard. The white tail feathers are usually visible in flight. Notice the moderate long tail. Females have a brownish back but it is not obvious so separating sexes is not easy.

When I was first learning about birds, the junco reminded me of an Easter egg that had been dipped in dark gray coloring. Only the portion that was not dipped remained white so I began referring to it as the Easter egg bird. I wonder how many people remember dipping eggs? When my daughters were young, we referenced them as the Easter Egg Bird but the girls learned the name Dark-eyed Junco also. The descriptive Easter Egg Bird name was more memorable and fun for us. It was an enjoyable way to help them learn to observe the wonderful variety of shape, form, and color in nature niches. We spent family time outside observing and enjoying while experiencing the natural wonders around us.

There are several subspecies of juncos across North America. In Michigan and the East the Slate-colored Junco subspecies is normally the only one present. They tend to hop but will walk about the ground while foraging seeds. Watch how different species move about uniquely. During summer about half of their diet is insects. Young are raised on an even higher percentage of insects. Insects are important for successful rearing of young for most songbirds.

Juncos are a winter treat that offers variety from the regular summer birds. They appreciate the open yards that have scattered conifers and deciduous trees where they can take shelter. When they return north in spring to breed, they select open areas among conifers and hardwood trees.

Nesting occurs northward from Cadillac and well into Canada’s open forested areas. I have seen Juncos remain near the Howard Christensen Nature Center during summer and suspect there could be some nesting this far south. They nest on the ground near logs or other objects that help conceal the location.

While you stay nestled in the house this winter, keep feeders full and enjoy the variety of feathered neighbors that stop by for a meal. Your yard can provide entertaining activity all winter when you provide food and shelter.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, 616-696-1753.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Easter Egg Bird